Police reform monitors will be bound by new rules, Justice Department says

The Justice Department will impose new limits on police reform monitors, it announced Monday.

The new restrictions – including budget caps, term limits and training requirements  – come after Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this year announced the revival of intervention in troubled police agencies, actions that often result in costly court enforced reform agreements overseen by special federal monitors.

For years, the Justice Department had relied on so-called consent decrees to bringing needed change to prisons, jails and police departments accused of abuse, a practice that was all but abandoned during the Trump administration.

While agencies have largely benefitted from the intervention, police officials have expressed repeated concerns for the duration of the agreements and the costs related to overhauling their operations, including monitor payments.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, center, along with Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, right, and Acting Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) Director Marvin G. Richardson, left, leaves the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headquarters in Washington, Thursday, July, 22 2021.

More:AG Garland reverses Trump-era policy limiting consent decrees in police investigations

More:Police oversight languished under Trump. Biden’s DOJ is bringing federal inquiries back

In some communities, those payments have risen to more than $1 million annually.

“Constraining monitor costs also minimize any actual conflict of interest between a monitor’s duty to the jurisdiction and her bottom line,” according to a Justice memorandum outlining the new guidelines. “Monitorships should be designed to avoid even the appearance that a monitor is primarily motivated by profit.

“Repeatedly, many of the stakeholders we interviewed urged the department to do more to dispel the perception that monitoring is becoming a cottage industry, closed to outside voices,” the memo stated.

Future consent decrees, according to the Justice Department, will now include caps on such fees negotiated by the parties and term limits for their tenure in communities. 

Consent decrees in cities across the country

William Bratton, a former chief in New York and Los Angeles who helped guide Los Angeles through a 12-year consent decree, has expressed concern about the duration and expense of such agreements.

In this 2105 file photo, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton speaks during a news conference at police headquarters in New York.

“I think you have to be careful to make sure these (federal inquiries) don’t become too big, too costly,” Bratton told USA TODAY earlier this year.  “You don’t want it to become an industry.”

“What many of these agreements don’t do is provide a measure for success in the relationship between the police department and community,” Bratton said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank which has closely examined cases of federal intervention in policing, has called the relationship between the monitor and the police agency as one “one of the biggest challenges.”

In Oakland, California, the department has been tethered to an unusual reform agreement for nearly 20 years that has cost the city millions. Notably, the so-called negotiated settlement agreement was the result of a private lawsuit and had no connection to the Justice Department.

More:As federal oversight of police comes to new cities, Oakland serves as cautionary tale

Yet the community has chafed over similar concerns for the cost and the current monitor who has managed the department’s progress for more than a decade.

Garland, since taking office earlier this year, has moved swiftly to confront troubled police agencies, opening wide-ranging civil rights investigations in Minneapolis, Louisville and Phoenix.

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